If there’s anything certain about the 127th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, it’s that the winner will probably pay a handsome price to its backers.
Without a clear-cut favorite, bettors can expect attractive odds up and down the field of up to 20 horses, the most allowed in the Derby.
The problem this year is the lack of consistency among the crop of 3-year-olds. Many of the contenders have shown flashes of talent along the Derby trail, but followed up with poor or bewildering efforts, or they simply disappeared from view.
For instance, Friends Lake looked brilliant winning the Florida Derby on March 13, but didn’t race after that. Instead, trainer John Kimmel elected to prepare him for the Run for the Roses through a series of workouts.
Workouts? Everyone knows you can’t prepare for the Derby through workouts alone.
Two months ago, Read the Footnotes was the "now" horse after his stunning win in the Fountain of Youth. The luster faded when he was soundly beaten in the Florida Derby.
Wimbledon raised hopes when he came from far off the pace to win the Louisiana Derby. But those hopes were tempered with his lackluster showing in the Santa Anita Derby four weeks later.
Imperialism strung together a couple of big wins to start the 2004 campaign at Santa Anita, but faltered in the Santa Anita Derby.
But this wouldn’t be the first year the Derby winner will have emerged from relative obscurity.
Two years ago, an unknown War Emblem won the Illinois Derby in wire-to-wire fashion and followed up that effort with wins in the Derby and Preakness.
And last year, Funny Cide was highly unregarded until he parlayed a second-place finish in the Wood Memorial to a victory in the Derby.
Could we have the same kind of happenstance this year? Maybe. Pollard’s Vision won the Illinois Derby in a front-running effort, which followed a third-place finish in the Louisiana Derby. Thus he warrants consideration.
And in this year’s Wood, Master David held on for second place, although he seemed to be tiring at the wire. Which was to be expected as his training schedule was altered weeks earlier due to slight illness. With the expectation to improve after needing the race, Master David should be among the serious contenders.
And there are others as well. The probable morning line favorite, Smarty Jones, has won all six of his lifetime starts, including the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby. The only question mark with Smarty is the distance; his front-running style suggests he might have problems carrying his speed for a mile and a quarter.
Another colt that will warrant strong backing is The Cliff’s Edge, Nick Zito’s winner of the Blue Grass Stakes earlier this month. While his speed rating of 115 was the highest in any Derby prep this season, Cliff’s Edge will probably come from far off the pace, and with up to 19 other horses in the field, traffic can be a problem in the stretch run. In his Blue Grass win, Cliff’s Edge barely got up at the wire in a field of only eight horses.
Another horse that merits consideration because of his late-running style is Tapit, who came from dead last to win the Wood Memorial going away. Even though he was soundly beaten in the Florida Derby earlier, Tapit appears to have peaked at the right time and should be in the thick of the charge for the finish line in the Derby.
Limehouse had a brilliant 2-year-old campaign highlighted by a big win over Cuvee, who at the time was the toast of Kentucky. Since then, he’s had a tepid campaign, winning marginal events like the Hutcheson and Tampa Derby, but running poorly in the Bluegrass Stakes. Nevertheless, some of his past efforts suggest a touch of class that can’t be ignored on the first Saturday in May.
An intriguing possibility is Borrego, who has strung together three straight second-place finishes. They include a late-charging effort against Smarty Jones in the Arkansas Derby, a strong move from dead last to finish a couple of lengths behind Wimbledon in the Louisiana Derby, and a front-running effort against Master David in the Sham Stakes. With his consistency, Borrego has to be considered a serious contender on Saturday.
So, how will all of this shake out on Saturday? There’s enough speed in the race to prevent another front-running romp for a horse like Pollard’s Vision. Others that could fall victim to the early pace will probably be Smarty Jones and Lion Heart.
A quick early pace should set it up nicely for late runners like Borrego and The Cliff’s Edge, who I tab to finish second and third respectively.
But getting the nod is Master David, who most likely needed his last after missing the Florida Derby four weeks before the Wood. The Bobby Frankel trainee could be sitting on a big effort and could pay as high as 10-1 or more.
Kentucky Derby prediction:
1. Master David
3. The Cliff’s Edge